You find a musty old hardcover book hidden away in the shelves of the library. The cover says Ship of Theseus by V. M. Straka and translated to English by F. X. Caldeira. You open up the book and notice that it is full of marginalia written in several colored inks by multiple people. You flip through the pages and old postcards, photos, letters and maps fall out. Intrigued you start reading and quickly realize that this is no normal book. The book turns out to have 3 different stories. First, what is actually printed is the story of a man-with-no-name who goes by S. Next, is the marginalia which seems to be a conversation between two people who think the book actually holds secrets related to the elusive author VMS. Finally, the elaborate footnotes by FXC seem to reveal mysterious clues about VMS. Welcome to a post-modern book/puzzle/game experience titled S. conceived by J. J. Abrams and written by Doug Dorst.
How do you even read and experience a creation where there are 3 stories within each other and are intertwined? At first, I tried to read the actual novel, the footnotes and the marginalia at the same time and found that to be unappetizing. So I read the printed story of the novel first: the travails of our hero S. Set in a time after WW2, the theme is very noir - S wakes up in a port city with no memory of who he is and what he is doing there. He meets and becomes infatuated with a woman named Sola in a bar, but is kidnapped on to a sailing vessel with a strange crew whose lips are stitched shut. He is dropped off near an arms factory run by a villain named Vevoda and becomes a fugitive along with some factory workers. As they hide in the mountains, they are tracked down and killed by Vevoda's men and S again finds himself on the ship. From here he is slowly brainwashed into taking on the mantle as an assassin of Vevoda's men around the world, which he accomplishes using poisons. In the final climax, he meets Sola and they head to Vevoda's estate to kill him in a manner reminiscent of Heart of Darkness.
Next I started from the beginning and read the footnotes and the elaborate marginalia. It turns out that the cursive notes are by a female English literature undergrad named Jen and the block writing by a former PhD student in her department who reveals himself to be Eric. These two start writing to each other through notes in the book's margins and that is how we learn about them. Eric is an expert on VMS and was researching the real identity of this elusive author when his supervisor Moody kicked him out of university. Jen is now working under Moody's TA Ilsa, also Eric's former flame. Through clues hidden in the writing by VMS and the translation by FXC and her footnotes, the duo discover that probably VMS and FXC were attracted to each other. As they unlock the secrets of the book, dangerous elements start trailing Jen and Eric. Their risky mission has an happy ending as Eric finally falls for Jen's frequent overtures of love.
S. was quite a high-effort book. To be honest, it is not a book in the traditional sense, more of a book/puzzle/game medium. The production is simply stunning, with the fonts, typeset and pages look yellow and actually like a book from decades ago. The marginalia looks real, the creators must've put quite some effort to hire two people to write the stuff out throughout the book. I was all the more shocked later to discover that the publishers had done all this for each translated version of this book! Add to that, all the handwritten letters, photocopies, old photos, postcards - quite a treasure chest this book is. While I thoroughly enjoyed soaking in all these, I was quite underwhelmed by everything else. The story of S begins great, but I never got really invested in him, and by the third act I had no interest. Same goes for Jen and Eric - all the stories were just not that engaging. Also, their quest to find out the identities of VMS and FXC - not very interesting. All in all, this book was an one-of-a-kind experience, A+ for the effort, but B for the story telling.